The Best Albums of 2016
Although we lost some of our best Southern voices this year, including the incomparable Sharon Jones and boundary-pusher Leon Russell, 2016 was also filled with Southern artists taking one of the bigger resurveyings of our region’s sound has seen. From Beyoncé’s experiential Lemonade and her sister Solange’s identity think piece A Seat at the Table to the Drive-By Truckers’ American Band, the year’s most powerful social commentary came from Southerners’ perspectives. Hiss Golden Messenger and Robert Ellis taught us that nostalgic sounds don’t have to be taken so literally; that songwriting based in real-time personal experience still makes for the best foundation. There were career defining moments for country superstars like Miranda Lambert and the genre transcendent Angel Olsen. Legends like Loretta Lynn, Allen Toussaint (albeit posthumously), and John Prine continued to preserve and share the best elements of Southern music. Here are our favorite albums of 2016.
Follow us on Spotify for our playlist featuring all our favorite songs from the list.
Lemonade by Beyoncé
From the visual album to the live show, Lemonade washed over the country from the minute it was released and left us drenched in the sticky sweet and sour issues Beyoncé explores in it–from African American women and their position in America and betrayal, to enduring love and motherhood.
Heart like a Levee by Hiss Golden Messenger
Songwriter M.C. Taylor takes us on a roadtrip from Biloxi to Philadelphia, pointing out specific landmarks, telling us stories about his family back home, but we aren’t watching him from above. He leaves room for us in the passenger seat to ride along and form our own relationship to his vantage point. With top-notch musicians like Phil and Brad Cook and Matthew McCaughan, background vocals by Tift Merritt, and arrangements that shift from sunny to sultry to stormy, Heart Like a Levee became the refreshing moment Americana needed.
A Seat at the Table by Solange
Solange wrote much of A Seat at the Table, not in a tricked out studio, but while staying in a little house in Patoutville, Louisiana, outside of New Iberia where her grandparents lived and fled. Although her album doesn’t have the Cajun dancehall and zydeco sounds that area is known for, you can still feel how she uses the town’s ubiety and her family’s past there as a vehicle for questioning her present and the larger experience for black women in this country. The heaviness of the subject matter doesn’t crush the lush compositions, but floats perfectly over top.
Robert Ellis by Robert Ellis
Robert Ellis’ influences have been clear since his 2011 album Photographs: Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Paul Simon, and other classic artists. But he’s never let them tempt him into imitation like many of his other contemporaries. While he safely stood on the edge of the throwback country canyon before, his self-titled effort takes a few big steps backwards where he solidly stakes out his own perspective and sound. Centered on his own divorce, Ellis elegantly pulls apart what went wrong, smiling at the happy snapshots from better times and anguishing over the memories of where it all fell apart.
American Band by Drive-By Truckers
The Truckers have been outspoken advocates of the duality of the Southern thing for 20 years now, and American Band shows their best work on the subject. While still informed by the Muscle Shoals and Athens sounds, they have also made it distinctly their own.
American Tunes by Allen Toussaint
New Orleans, and in turn the world, lost not only a founding fathers of the city’s sound but also one of its fiercest guardians last year, Allen Toussaint. Although you may not know him by name, you’ve undoubtedly heard his work from his collaborations with Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, and Ernie K-Doe to his production of the mega hit “Lady Marmalade.” American Tunes became the last record he would give us this year when it was released posthumously, and it now serves as an essential, stripped-down retrospective on his best work.
How to Dance by Mount Moriah
Mount Moriah became one of our favorite Southern bands when their 2013 song “Lament” got stuck in our heads and we didn’t want it to stop. Two critically-acclaimed records later, the trio’s How to Dance bakes classic country, ’70s punk fervor, church revivals, and dream pop sensibilities into one satisfying casserole–luscious on the inside, crunchy on top.
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter by Margo Price
Margo Price’s music is deeply steeped in Nashville’s classic, honky-tonk-era sound, but Midwest Farmer’s Daughter story isn’t fictional like so many other similarly influenced albums that came out this year from Music City. The loss of the family farm, rolling into town $57 short of being broke, the death of a child, hawking a wedding ring to pay for a recording session, whiskey as an all-purpose balm—these aren’t exactly unfamiliar themes in country music, but Price’s experience with them is what makes her work compelling. She isn’t trying to inhabit a character or force an image, and that vulnerability is heartening. There’s no better testament to all of that than the opening track, “Hands of Time.”
Beulah by John Paul White
John Paul White’s voice is the sonic equivalent to literature’s Southern Gothic genre. Beautiful yet haunting, it pairs perfectly with the stories told on the record that lean toward The Grotesque in the Flannery O’Connor sense. Backing vocals by the Secret Sisters add a subtle sweetness to the song's pleasant bitterness and a band made up of musicians creating the next chapter in the Muscle Shoals modernizes them.
Cautionary Tale by Dylan LeBlanc
Produced by the previously mentioned John Paul White along with the Alabama Shakes’ Ben Tanner, Dylan LeBlanc’s first solo record since he left an unlikely major label deal at 23-years-old marks a maturity and newfound clarity. His new approach that combines his stunning voice with exquisitely detailed songs are influenced by artists such as Neil Young, Wilco, Bill Withers, and Merle Haggard.
Full Circle by Loretta Lynn
Loretta Lynn may be 83-years-old now, but her voice endures as an invaluable one in modern country music, not because of her legend status, but because her perspective and style remain relevant.
The Very Last Day by Parker Millsap
Parker Millsap has not only a booming, bluesy voice that belies his youth–like an early, unrestrained Elvis Presley or a thundering preacher, but he also has a knack for writing more multidimensional characters than most found in Americana fodder; they’re a convenience store robber who happens to be a veteran or even Hades, King of the Underworld, trying to convince Persephone to hop in his black limousine.
No Burden by Lucy Dacus
With her breakout album No Burden, Lucy Dacus solidifies Richmond’s status as a hotbed of new, innovative music, fitting in alongside names like Matthew E. White and Natalie Prass.
This Is Where I Live by William Bell
One of the first artists signed by Stax Records in Memphis, famous for others like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, Bell made a comeback on the same, newly reactivated label after it shut down 41 years ago. This Is Where I Live is filled with soul ballads that harken back to one of Southern music’s best periods.
MY WOMAN by Angel Olsen
There’s no better way to hear Asheville singer-songwriter Angel Olsen’s growth as an artist than to listen to her sweeping track “Sister,” which moves from the folk-like feel she was known for to the otherworldly pop she explores on MY WOMAN over an arresting seven minutes and 46 seconds.
The Weight of These Wings by Miranda Lambert
While Miranda Lambert is undeniably one of mainstream country’s megastars, her work The Weight of These Wings makes for a much more nuanced, complicated listen than anything you’ll hear on top 40 country radio.
Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest
Car Seat Headrest may be based out of Seattle now, but Teens of Denial, a dynamic, fresh-sounding take on adolescent anxiety, compels us to claim their Southern roots.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson’s Grammy-nominated record takes the cosmic country vibe from his first critically-acclaimed album to a darker, stranger place that somehow shines a brighter light on his talent.
Blindfaller by Mandolin Orange
What Nickel Creek started, Mandolin Orange is continuing and redeveloping.
For Better, or Worse by John Prine
John Prine pairs himself with an all-star lineup of women musicians including Susan Tedeschi, Alison Krauss, and Kacey Musgraves for a collection of country standards.